The stencilled 1988 on a shed wall at Clachanburn Station in Central Otago is more than a piece of graffiti or a casual reference to a year last century.
It marks the year John Falconer’s parents, Charles and Jane, started progressively replacing sheep with deer on the property near Patearoa in the Maniototo Basin.
For the family that date signifies much more: an historic reference to how each of the previous two generations to farm the property created the legacy of a sustainable business for future generations.
Today Clachanburn covers 2600ha and runs 6200 deer with Elk and Red stud herds, terminal sires, specialist venison and velvet finishing herds and a trophy hunting block.
The station also includes the 300ha Loganburn farm, a finishing property on river flats in the Styx Valley south of the home block.
John Falconer said his parents made the bold decision to move to deer and astutely decided to use the best genetics they could find.
Clachanburn was settled in 1920 by Charles and Dorothy Aitchison as Run 624 when Puketoi Station was subdivided for ex-servicemen.
The name Clachanburn is Gaelic for Stoney Creek, which flows through the farm.
Laurie Falconer worked for the Aitchisons and when he returned to Maniototo after serving in WWII he bought an adjacent farm.
In 1959 with wife Marj, they bought Clachanburn from the widowed Dorothy Aitchison, eventually establishing Hereford, Merino and half-bred studs.
Their son Charles married Jane (nee Roberts) in 1971 and took over the farm in 1977, introducing irrigation, developing the hill country then switching to deer out of frustration with the sheep industry.
John Falconer said his father saw parallels for deer in the cattle industry, specifically the need for terminal sires, a role he saw for Elk.
“Dad saw an opportunity in the very early days with what exotic cattle were doing for beef finishing operations,” he said.
He sourced dual-purpose genetics from noted breeders Foveran Deer Park and John Barber, focused on meat production and a style of antler that suited both velveting and trophy hunting.
The development programme started in the 1980s has today extended to 230km of deer fencing.
John Falconer took over what was then a 700ha farm in 1997, by which stage all the sheep were gone though some beef remained but were soon sold.
Clachanburn today has grown to a much larger but balanced property over two farms.
The main station runs from fertile basin flats 450m above sea level to 1000m asl on the rugged Rough Ridge. Loganburn is about 500m above sea level.
Falconer recently branched into Red deer as an investment for the future, buying Dave and Chrissie Mackie’s Antler and Views Red Deer stud from Kaikoura.
The herd will supply stock for velvet, stud and terminal stags and improve genetics for his hunting block.
Today Clachanburn runs 700 stud Elk cows, 300 Red stud hinds, 1600 commercial Red hinds, 120 rising two-year-old Elk bulls, 110 rising three-year-old Elk bulls, 100 Elk bulls aged four to seven, 40 sire bulls, 400 Red velveting stags, 600 stud Elk weaners, 250 stud Red weaners, 1500 hybrid weaners and 600 bought-in yearlings for trading.
His biggest Elk bull weighs 570kg. Elk cows kill out at average between 120kg and 130kg and yearling bulls at 100kg.
The station operates as the main breeding and wintering block with Loganburn running 400 velveting stags and each year finishing 2000 animals for venison.
Most of those are the progeny from 1600 Red hinds mated to Elk bulls, which are trucked to Loganburn in March and killed from October to December averaging 62.5kg.
They are joined by about 250 weaner Red stags from the stud herd, out of which trophy stags are selected and culls killed for venison.
Elk bulls average 8kg of velvet and Reds 5kg.
The size of Elk has deterred some from using the breed but Falconer said a combination of loyal customers and a history of breeding for temperament, growth, antler style and constitution make the breed easier to work with.
He described Elk as intelligent and sensible.
“A lot of big bulls are naturally dominant and you can’t completely get rid of that. If they get submissive you can have problems with mating.”
Falconer said Elk demand respect but he and his staff have few problems.
Breeding has created larger animals. He recalls three-year-old Elk at 300kg when he started. Now he has animals that age averaging 400kg.
He has introduced single-sire mating, artificial insemination and progeny testing to the stud herds to improve genetic gain.
An Elk bull on Clachanburn Station, Maniototo.
Despite the harsh winters Falconer still fed his stock for growth all year round. From June to August a diet of lucerne baleage and fodder beet enabled stud animals to average 175 grams a day weight gain and hybrids 100g a day.
Falconer’s ancestors chose wisely when they settled in the southwest corner of the basin. Though the climate can be hot, dry and cold it provides excellent animal health and stock do well.
He said he is lucky to have some exceptional staff and advisers he trusts.
“I can’t do this stuff by myself.”
Wife Mary takes care of the accounting work and livestock recording while he is supported by stock manager Steve Barrett and staff Nicki Tobeck and Sam Pollock.
They do their own agricultural work, including growing 80ha of precision-sown crops, primarily fodder beet and 1500 tonnes of silage.
Falconer said maintaining a clean animal health status is a priority so he can access marketing ventures such as exporting Elk semen, which he has previously done to Australia, Britain and South Korea.
He has also exported 40 live yearling Elk to China.
Falconer said his family’s link to the land is central to their approach to their business.
“People who are inter-generational farmers look at business differently.”
John and Mary Falconer are already thinking and planning for the next generation – Lucy, 10, and Charlie, 9, – to farm Clachanburn Station should they wish.
Also on the property is the nationally recognised Clachanburn Garden which caters to tourists and weddings. It is run by Jane Falconer.
The garden network of flower beds, shrubs, trees, an orchard from which jams and preserves were made, and a large pond was registered with the NZ Garden Trust and has been developed since the arrival of water for irrigation in 1985.